Movies: The Death of Stalin, Moneyball
TV: TableTop (season 4)
Other: Horizon Chase (video game)
Darth Vader by Kieron Gillen
This is the 2015 Marvel comics run that follows Darth Vader between the end of A New Hope and the start of The Empire Strikes Back. And in doing so, it asks a very reasonable question: how does the guy who led the Empire's most catastrophic failure still have a job two years later?
The answer is "via steady, diligent, House of Cards-style conniving," as the Dark Lord of the Sith uses every Machiavellian technique he can think of to work his way back from the Emperor's disfavor.
And it's fun. And it's well-constructed. But somehow it never had the emotional impact of Lando, and I'm not sure why. Maybe the whole Bizarro morality of the Sith hierarchy is hard to relate to. Maybe the writing got a tiny bit too cute, with Aphra as a winking reference to Indiana Jones, and 000 and Beeteee as evil doppelgängers for C3P0 and R2-D2.
And maybe it was just the wrong time for me to read this book. I just finished The Final Days, a book of Wire-like complexity and blistering modern relevance, so maybe even a great Star Wars story is just going to feel like so much "Yay! Space wizardz! Pew pew pew!"
I suspect, though, that I disconnect from the work because it's too much *about* the machinations. There's very little there emotionally, and the work is almost exclusively about "how will Lord Vader cleverly finagle his way back to the top?" And you know exactly how it turns out, because you've seen Empire and this comic is unlikely to zag into gleeful canon revisionism. Plus, when your downtrodden antihero can beat an entire army singlehanded, it's hard to really wonder how things will turn out.
Still, it's great when the emotions *do* peek through. Vader's realization that he has a son is gasp-worthy — one of those great fanfic moments where there's an amazing scene that you never realized must have been implied by the story you thought you knew so well. And the writers make some really interesting attempts to get across exactly *why* Aphra is so keen on helping out the Empire.
But those moments are islands in a sea of "sociopaths trying to outmaneuver each other." And yet: I say that, but many of my favorite stories have featured sociopaths trying to outmaneuver each other. The original BBC House of Cards was one of my favorite TV shows for a good chunk of my adolescence. Maybe these are just the wrong times to root for the bad guys — if I suspect a story might be some edgelord's favorite thing, it puts a bad taste in my mouth.
It's still entertaining, though. The writers do a masterful job of setting up the empirical hierarchy as (basically) a pit of vipers, and clearly expressing all the plans within plans within plans that Vader has to maneuver through. The comic series is definitely worth your time. But definitely read Lando first.
The Final Days by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein
This is the 1976 Woodward and Bernstein book about the end of the Nixon administration — from the breaking of the Watergate story to the resignation.
This is not the easiest read. I'm not that conversant with the details of Watergate, so I don't have a lot of context to work with. This is a pretty epic treatment of the subject with a wide cast of characters — and since this is American politics in the 1970s, that means a bunch of older, WASPy white dudes, and that means that all the names kind of blur together. And while they are some of the best reporters who ever lived, Woodward and Bernstein are not the best at characterization. Nixon himself is a towering, riveting figure; Haig and Kissinger are ably written; but when you get far outside that central circle of characters, you never get a clear mental image for most of these people, or a sense of what their deal is.
That said, the level of reporting here, and the attention to detail, is amazing. It feels almost like Tacoma, like you're watching this recording of everything that happened over the course of this convoluted disaster, and you can focus in on anything that catches your interest. And the situation itself is riveting: the stakes get higher and higher and higher, as an icky burglary arrangement snowballs into money laundering, and lying to prosecutors, and obstruction of justice, and on and on and on, leaving all those president's men to decide, on painfully limited information, both whether they think Nixon is guilty, and how to get to the end of Watergate without tearing apart the entire country.
And yes, of course it has modern relevance. When I started reading this, I thought that, well, the obvious anachronistic element is that there are audio recordings that become such a big deal. That's a kind of old-timey thing that will never bear on this current complex of disasters, and — oh, what? Michael Cohen made tapes of the Karen McDougal "catch-and-kill" arrangements, and... oy. Obviously, Trump is very very different from Nixon, and obviously, we have no idea how this imbroglio will end, but the core story, where career politicians wrestle with existential threats to democracy, must be the same.
I'm not sure this book is worth your time if you're not already curious about Watergate. But even if you're not a nerd for this sort of thing, it's a good read.
Makers and Takers: How Wall Street Destroyed Main Street by Rana Foroohar
This is Rana Foroohar's 2017 book about how the American economy has gone from making products and services people use to creating financial instruments that serve no function besides siphoning capital to the 1%.
If I remember right, I became interested in all this because of a trench. Specifically, in 2010, James Barskdale was securing funding to build a trench through New Jersey. The purpose was to lay fiberoptic lines from a place physically closer to the New York Stock Exchange — the proximity would shave 3 milliseconds off of trades to Chicago.
Knowing what little I know about economics, I saw two possibilities.
1. The deal made sense: sure, this was a massive outlay of capital and labor, but having slightly faster transactions would benefit everybody in the long run, and benefit the world so much that it was worth the trouble.
2. The deal didn't make sense: something was broken in capitalism, and now the system was prodding the best minds of our generation into digging a big hole that nobody needed.
Ever since then, I've been making pitiful efforts to understand the "financialization" of the American economy. These days, we divert 20% of the collective economy towards banking and finance. And as far as I can tell, if we reverted to the banking system we had in 1970 and everything else vanished, we'd get 20% of our productivity back and nothing of value would be lost.
It's weird. The whole point of capitalism is that it naturally guides people towards doing tasks that other people value. If you want to spend your life moving a little pile of rocks from point A to point B and back again, well, that benefits nobody, so nobody will pay for it, so Adam Smith's 'invisible hand' will gently nudge towards doing things people need. Human greed gets judo'd around so it serves human necessities. Again, that's the point of it. That's the only reason to keep that system around.
Now we have a ruling class of rock-movers, and I have no idea why.
Makers and Takers tries to cover this exact topic for a lay audience. But even then, I didn't find it the most accessible book. The book dives into talking about "stock buybacks" for example, and I realized I only vaguely knew what that even was, beyond "someone is buying back a stock from someone?" And so it was for, say, "commodities derivatives" or "the Glass-Steagall Act" or anything else beyond my college ECON 101 class. Honestly, though, this probably says more about me than it does about the book.
The information is interesting, and Ms. Foroohar does find effective ways to turn financialization trends into self-contained, followable stories. But like most nonfiction writers, Foroohar has no feel for characterization or for investing those stories with emotions. So there's nothing really enticing you into wanting to learn more about this topic — you just have to walk into the book sufficiently motivated to go wading into the data.
In the end, I came out of this book with vague notions of what's broken in the economy, but no clear picture of what went wrong. I mean, I know the book *presented* me with a clear picture of what went wrong, but I don't quite have the background to understand it. It also ostensibly presented some possible solutions, but my reading of that, too, was a bit like showing a card trick to a dog.
And at this point, I'm starting to think the whole mess will always be a mystery to me. Everyone teeters on ruin except for a dozen billionaires with yacht fleets, and all the solutions seem impossible. Makers and Takers may explain the situation to you better than it did to me.
The Death of Stalin
This is the 2017 Armando Ianucci political farce about, like the title says, the death of Stalin, and the power struggle among the Soviet central committee that immediately follows.
The weird thing about this movie is that Mr. Ianucci *wasn't* thinking about Trump when he made it. He started the adaptation because he liked the book, and then found himself going down a research rabbithole of the sort of despicable, farcical, brazenly self-absorbed political activity that's been his stock-in-trade.
And he wound up depicting so many uncomfortable echoes of modern politics that it feels custom-written for our times. Yes, when you have a fascist in charge, everybody competes to do the best kowtowing. Yes, it abrades away everyone's humanity, until they're telling throwaway jokes about how they just killed one of their closest compatriots. Scheming becomes matter-of-fact. Everyone is desperately afraid, all the time. And every single thing they do has massive, miserable human consequences to the masses who haven't managed to claw their way into the inner circle.
Don't get me wrong, the film is hilarious. But it is unafraid to lean into the dark, dark undertow that's inherent to the story.
Unsurprisingly, Mr. Ianucci got an insanely good cast. Where the hell did Michael Palin come from? I half-suspected he was dead, or if not dead, at least whiling away his time on pleasant, harmless travel shows. But here he is absolutely punching his weight against folks like Jason Isaacs and Steve Buscemi, with moments of genuine political earnestness that feel just viscerally wrong for this pit-of-vipers milieu.
I don't know if I have much more to say about this — not least because I watched it on the flights home from Portland. It's like a Fiasco playset for 1950s Russia, with everyone's schemes colliding into chaos, and terrible consequences for most of them.
And somehow, it feels kind of calming for these political times. You find yourself relieved that somebody is calling out modern politics for what it is. You feel less gaslit, and more reassured that This Is Not Normal.
But again, that's odd, because that was totally not the intent.
This is the 2011 film adaptation of the Michael Lewis book of the same name. Aaron Sorkin wrote the screenplay, and Bennett Miller directed.
And so continues the improbable streak of movie adaptations of Michael Lewis books. I say "improbable" because, at least judging from Moneyball and The Big Short, Mr. Lewis loves going deep into the weeds. The story is there, sure — you're following clever stock analysts or clever baseball analysts or... whatever's going on in The Blind Side, but the story is there just to lure you into these thickets of bizarre details.
And the real content of the books is fascinating. Far and away the best part of Moneyball is how he breaks down the details of sabremetrics, making it look clear and simple, like it's all obvious in retrospect. Scouts and analysts had a romantic view of baseball: they're all about the players who have *all* the necessary skills, and especially the ones who can send a ball sailing dramatically over the wall, the ones who (I kid you not) *look* like baseball players, with "a good baseball face". An overweight guy getting on in years who gets walked half the time he's at bat? Nah, that guy's no good — even though getting on base is the most important thing the player at bat can do. So of course analysts swoop in, snap up all the players who can reliably get on base, over and over again, and then demolish everyone in their path.
So to adapt these wildly popular nonfiction books into films, you have to sort of come at them from weird angles. For The Big Short, the formalism was pretty dramatic, with fourth-wall breaks, and needlesly-edgy editing, and Margot Robie in a hot tub explaining tranches. For Moneyball, they sort of go the other way, reining in a very math-y book until it's a more traditional underdog sports movie. And that's a story that was there in the original book, of course — but it never felt like what the book was *about*. It was about a very intellectual shift in how people view the game — sort of 'unweaving the rainbow' of the Great American Pastime.
(And because this is Sorkin, of course there's now a female character whose job is to support the Brilliant Man With Bold New Ideas — I don't recall Beane's daughter being anywhere in the original book.)
And mind you, the movie is still a great watch. Aaron Sorkin is unmatched for writing about "great men doing smart things", and there are points in the film, like Beane's convoluted trades for Rincon, where it feels like Sorkin is delightfully showing off, keeping the audience perfectly in the loop for a very complicated task done exceptionally well. Let's face it: this is as close as I'll ever get to getting more Sports Night, and on that score I have no complaints.
And the moments when you *see* the math of it all depicted on screen — when you see the old scouts talk about the traits they're looking for, or you see Jonah Hill patiently explain how they're all wrong — that, too, is delightful. For a certain sort of reader, that's like finally seeing the Battle of Hogwarts show up onscreen.
And the standard-shaped "sports underdog story" is done skillfully and professionally. Everyone (including, somehow, Chris Pratt? and Philip Seymour Hoffman?) turns in lovely performances. I've seen this story shape many times before, but it generates some real emotional stakes, particularly in Chris Pratt's ex-catcher who thought his career was finished at age 32.
It's definitely worth watching. But if you only have time for one, read the book instead.
TableTop (season 4)
This is the fourth season of Wil Wheaton's webseries in which he and his friends play board games.
No lie, I have been watching this show purely as comfort food. Life has been — not "difficult", necessarily, but I've definitely overcommitted, overscheduled myself, and now I'm just exhausted all the time. So: time to watch fun and quirky geek-culture personalities play interesting board games I haven't heard of.
First off, the games this season are exceptional — just game after game where I think, yup, that'd be great to play if I somehow wound up with free time. (I think Dragon Farkle was the only dud, a dice-rolling endurance test that seemed to lack for real strategy.) The games themselves are presented well, with excellent post-production succinctly explaining even fiddly and complicated rulesets, and occasional cutaways to player interviews to let us see the strategic and emotional arc over the course of the game. Nothing new there.
Or more precisely, maybe half the cutaways explained how the players were feeling or strategizing at that point in the game. The other half were pretty clearly individual players responding to improv prompts from the interviewer. If they're playing Tiny Epic Galaxies, they'd be asked "What is the culture of the green empire like?", or if they were to play Clue, someone would ask "What does Colonel Mustard eat for breakfast?" And they'd shrug and blow out their cheeks and spitball some random answer for a few minutes, and the editors would clip out one punchy, sound-bite sentence from that, and they'd put it in the episode to add quirkiness to the gameplay.
Unfortunately, I am 100% the wrong audience for that. I see someone doing "quirky invention", and a neuron in my brain fires, and I realize, "Oh. I am watching shitty improv." And then my poor, tortured, jaded soul waits for the wearying gags to be over. "He eats... um, *sandwiches*! Because, um, 'Mustard', amirite? [looks at camera; awkward pause]" And then they'd go, mercifully, back to the game, which is really quite good.
By the last episodes of season four, Mr. Wheaton seemed like he might be in bad shape. I think I read that he'd been having a rough time with depression at that point, and he did make several on-camera comments on the long shooting days towards the end of the season. Maybe I was perceiving things that weren't there, but he seemed more stressed than usual then, and a bit snippy with his fellow players. But these were momentary blips in, overall, very strong episodes.
And that's it for TableTop — for the time being anyway. Now I have a whole pile of new-to-me games I need to play. (Top of the list: Mysterium.)
Horizon Chase (video game)
This is a 2015 iOS racing game.
Not much to say about this, other than that I finally finished it a few days ago. I recommend this game because it's so unambitious. It's just trying to be a fun racing game. It has fun music, bright colors, and excellent designs for its racetracks and its cars. It's the usual grind mechanic — win more races to get more upgrades to win more races — but it's a perfect little game for picking up while you're (say) in line at an airport and want to kill a couple minutes on something silly and fun.
For next week: I'm watching Call Me By Your Name and season one of Review, and reading Inside the Cell, a fascinating critique of DNA evidence in the modern level legal system.
 Side note: I'm told that Slow Burn, the podcast about Watergate, is well worth my valuable time.
 I found myself retroactively respecting Michael Lewis even more for his work along those lines in The Big Short.